Category Archives: UAVs

Sun2ice: Solar Powered UAV

One of the important use cases for UAVs is surveillance in all its forms. Small, cheap aircraft can cover a lot of area, carry a lot of different sensors, and swoop in to obtain very close up information.   In some cases, a human can directly control the aircraft (as in selfie cams and drone racing), but for many cases the UAV needs to be substantially autonomous.

Furthermore, remote observation generally needs long, slow flights, rather than short, fast ones. Range and flight duration are critical.

Remote sensing by UAVs is ideal for many kinds of environmental research, especially in remote areas such as deserts, oceans, or polar regions. A fleet of (inexpensive) UAVs can multiply the view of a single (very expensive) scientist by orders of magnitude, measuring a broad area, and identifying points of interest for detailed investigation.

This summer a group of researchers from ETH and the AtlantikSolar company have demonstrated a UAV that continuously monitored glaciers in Greenland. The Sun2ice is solar powered, so it charges its batteries as long as the sun is shining. In the polar summer, there is essentially 24 hour sunlight, so the UAV has power to fly continuously for months, at least in principle. Like other solar powered aircraft and boats, the AtlantikSolar needs not fuel and should be capable of extremely long missions.

Of course, flying over Greenland is difficult for any aircraft, and flying a small UAV continuously over remote and rugged glaciers is very challenging. The aircraft must deal with high winds and cold temperatures, even in good weather. With no pilot on board, the control systems must be highly automated.

The UAV must navigate over uninhabited territory, far from the humans back at base. It has to stay on station to collect data continuously, with little help from people. Magnetic compasses don’t work on Greenland, and continuous daylight means that celestial navigation is not possible either.

The researchers also had to deal with take off and landing from a remote field station. The video shows the UAV being delivered to its launch point via dogsled—Pleistocene technology deploying twenty first century technology. The test flights were successful, though flying time was less than a full day.

Flying an experimental solar-powered UAV as AtlantikSolar in Arctic conditions is very challenging due to the narrow sun angle, extreme climatic conditions, the weakness of the magnetic field used for the compass, and the absence of smooth grass-covered terrain to land a fragile airplane.

This technology is ideal for intense observation of glaciers and other natural phenomena. The UAV flies low enough to obtain high resolution images, and if it can stay on station, can provide updated data every hour or less. The UAV is cheaper than a satellite, and even than a piloted aircraft. It would be possible to deploy a fleet of UAVS to monitor a glacier or volcano in great detail for substantial periods.


  1. Philipp Oettershagen, Amir Melzer, Thomas Mantel, Konrad Rudin, Thomas Stastny, Bartosz Wawrzacz, Timo Hinzmann, Stefan Leutenegger, Kostas Alexis, and Roland Siegwart, Design of small hand-launched solar-powered UAVs: From concept study to a multi-day world endurance record flight. Journal of Field Robotics, 34 (7):1352-1377, 2017.


Robot Wednesday

Drone Shows

I have noted the cool collaboration between roboticists from ETH and Cirque du Soleil.

This is now a for-hire business, with the tag line, “Drone shows: The magic is real”.

I note that the basic technology is pretty standard stuff, it’s “just quadcopters”. But developing a show or installation involves careful planning for safety, and they also do “costume design” (i.e., dressing up the flyers), choreography (flyers and human-flyer combos), as well as the control systems for the real time performances.

These theatrical spectacles are probably paving the way for robots in the home and cityscape better than all the engineering studies ever done.  First, the elegant storytelling is enchanting and attractive. I want to dance with these pretty robots.

Second, their choreography is developing a sense and a “grammar” of how humans and UAVs should interact.  Notably, the UAVs have a certain personality that seems  appropriately mechanical but still readable and approachable by humans.

I will add one criticism.

Esthetically, their shows are starting to all look the same, and the “gee whiz” factor is wearing off fast.

I’m hoping to see the next thing, something new and different. I didn’t really find that in the 2017 shows. In fact, the 2017 show reel is about 50% the exact same shows as the 2016 reel.

Perhaps it’s time to open up this technology to more artists.


Robot Wednesday

Collapsable Delivery Drone

I’m not a huge fan of buzzy little quadcopters, nor am I a fan of delivery drones. The former are about as welcome as a cloud of mosquitos, and the latter promises to transfer even more wealth to the 0.001%. (I’m not sure who these drones will be delivering to, when none of us have jobs or money to buy things.)

That said, I was interested to see the “origami-inspired cargo drone” developed by a group at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne [2]. Their design wraps the copter in a flexible cage, which protects the package and also encloses the dangerous rotors. The cage is foldable, so it closes up to a relatively small package when not in use.

The cage is a nice design. It addresses the safety (and perceived safety) of the drone in a nice way. Rather than depending on complex algorithms to make the drone “safe” and “friendly”, their design makes the drone a soft beach ball like thing—the affordances are obvious and visible. Furthermore, the safety factor is passive. The effectiveness of the enclosure does not depend on either software or humans.

I’m sure that this basic idea can be realized in a lot of geometries. The EPFL design is modular, which means that a variety of cages can be made from the same design. It folds up rather neatly, and, of course, is light and strong.

I could imagine versions of this concept that have a standard coupling to a range of quadcopters. Sort of a “delivery cage” costume for drones. (I smell a new standard for “drone costume attachment” coming.)

Clearly, there is no reason why the cage has to be so bare and undecorated. Why not streamers, glitter, and even LEDs? These might make the drone more appealing, and would also make the drone more visible to cameras, radar, and sonar. (Another standard? Passive safety reflectors for drones?)

I’m still not eager to have my local stores put out of business by Amazon, but if I’m going to have to live with drones, I’d like them to bounce off walls and people, rather than crash into them.

  1. Evan Ackerman, EPFL’s Collapsable Delivery Drone Protects Your Package With an Origami Cage, in IEEE Spectrum — Automation. 2017.
  2. Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, Stefano Mintchev, and Dario Floreano, An origami-inspired cargo drone, in IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. 2017: Vancouver.


Robot Wednesday

Disposable Sensor Drones

Today, the Internet of Things is in its early “steampunk” stage, basically adding mobile phone technology to toasters and refrigerators. The real IOT will be closer to the vision of Smart Dust described a quarter of a century ago—massive numbers of very tiny sensors, networked together. No, we really don’t know how to build that, yet, but we’re working on it.

For the past few years, the US Naval Research Lab has been working on disposable drones, which are beginning to become more like smart dust. Shrinking robot aircraft down, they are creating a sort of ‘guided dust’. OK, the dust motes are pretty chunky still, but it’s the steam era.  They’ll get smaller.

The CICADA project (Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft) has done a lot of prototypes, and they are showing their Mark 5 this year.

The robot glider is 3D printed and made up from already worked out technologies, sensors, radios, autopilot and guidance systems are dropped in. The design is “stackable”, and designed to be dropped in batches from an aircraft. Each glider steers toward a specific target, and beams back its data when it lands. The whole thing is cheap enough to be considered disposable (at least by the Pentagon.)

With different sensors, there are many obvious things that these could do. Their usage is captured nicely by the idea of dropping a batch into a storm, to capture a bunch of readings from inside. For meteorology, these are sort of like sounding balloons, except they fall instead of float.

Right now, [CICADAs] would be ready to go drop into a hurricane or tornado,” he said. “I really would love to fly an airplane over, and each of these could sample in the tornado. That’s ready now. We’d just need a ride. And [FAA] approval.” (Quoting NRL’s Dan Edwards)

I’m pretty sure that the military will find less benign uses for this concept, though there are already plenty of guided weapons already, so this isn’t anything new.

The prototype is said to run about $250, which is cheap for the Navy, but seems high to me. I’m not seeing anywhere near that much gear in these little birds, and most, if not all of it can be done from open source. I would expect that hobbyists could probably replicated this idea in a maker space for a whole lot less per unit. Couple it will inexpensive quad copters to lift them, and I could see a huge potential for citizen science.

As a software guy, I have to wonder what the data system looks like. Whatever the Navy has done, I’m pretty sure that hobbyists or science students can whip up a pretty nice dashboard to grab, analyze, and visualize the sensor traces.

  1. Evan Ackerman, Naval Research Lab Tests Swarm of Stackable CICADA Microdrones, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. US Naval Research Laboratory. CICADA: Close-in Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft. 2017,



Robot Wednesday

US NSF Funds Antarctic Science Drones

All around the world, Unoccupied Aircraft Systems (AKA, drones) are becoming useful scientific instruments. With the technological and economic push-pull of military and consumer demand, drones are becoming ubiquitous and cheap. Cheap enough for poverty stricken scientists to use.

Small drones have many advantages besides cost. They can carry cameras and other instruments to extend the view of science teams by many kilometers. They fly low, and can, indeed, touch down if needed.   With advances in control systems, it is becoming reasonable to operate flocks of them, to cover even more ground.

Many groups around the world are booting up this technology (E.g., reports by the US Marine Mammal Commission [2] and a coalition in New Zeeland [1]).

This week the US National Science Foundation announced funding of the Drones in Marine Science and Conservation lab at Duke University, which is specifically aimed at monitoring animals in Antarctica.

The advantages are obvious. Antarctica is huge, far away, and hard to get to. Satellites are blinded by cloud cover, and limited in resolution. Aircraft can only operate a few days per year, and are awfully expensive. Drones offer the advantages of aerial surveying at a reasonable cost.

As the video makes clear, the basic use is similar to civilian and military scouting, with the advantage that the penguins will neither shoot nor sue.  🙂

These drones are a bit more complicated than the toys under the Christmas tree, because they are equipped with a variety of instruments, potentially radar, lidar, multispectral cameras, and chemical samplers. As the NSF article points out, they “can even be used to sample breath from individual whales”.

The thrust of the NSF funding is to pull together all the rest of the picture, namely data analysis, visualization, and archiving the data. The project also contemplates training and other assistance to help future projects that want to employ drones.

This is pretty neat.

  1. Lorenzo Fiori, Ashray Doshi, Emmanuelle Martinez, Mark B. Orams, and Barbara Bollard-Breen, The Use of Unmanned Aerial Systems in Marine Mammal Research. Remote Sensing, 9 (6) 2017.
  2. Marine Mammal Commission, Development and Use of UASs by the National Marine Fisheries Service for Surveying Marine Mammals. Bethesda, 2016.


Robot Wednesday

The Omnicopter is Cool!

Yet another wonder robot from ETH in Zürich (e.g., see this and this):

The Omnicopter.


Not a quadcopter, it’s an octocopter!

The advantage of this design is that it is way, way more maneuverable than quadcopters, helicopters, or blimps. It has full 6DOF movement.

The principle was described in a paper last year [2] and a neat little video:

This year they produced a cool demonstration, playing fetch with the omnicopter.

This is pretty amazing!

The description of the demo indicates that it works by evaluating large numbers of possible trajectories to select optimal one from a given initial state to a final state. They say that the system can generate 500,000 trajectories per second, resulting is a smooth, magical effect.

(This is very much a “brute force” search through all possible trajectories—computers don’t have to be “smart” if they are fast!)

As Evan Ackerman comments, this design has a lot of potential to be better than the conventional approach of trying to put a robot arm on a quadcopter. “[Y]ou could just stick a gripper onto an arbitrary face of it, and then have the entire robot serve as an actuator.”

Nice work, all!

  1. Evan Ackerman, ETH Zurich’s Omnicopter Plays Fetch, in IEEE Spectrum – Automation. 2017.
  2. Dario Brescianini and Raffaello D’ Andrea. Design, modeling and control of an omni-directional aerial vehicle. In 2016 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 2016, 3261-3266.


Robot Wednesday